Barbara Bolig explores the various retellings of the Medea myth and asks if it’s possible to sympathise with one of mythology’s darkest female protagonists.
Heaven has no rage, like love to hatred turn’d,
Nor hell a fury, like a woman scornedWilliam Congreve’s The Mourning Bride, 1697
Dating back to ancient textual fragments anddrama texts, most notably those of Euripides and Seneca, the tale of Medea is easily one of the most well-known pagan myths transmitted into the Western cultural canon. It has been highly regarded in both arts and sciences for centuries, constituting the major focus for works of art and literature, as well as being at the centre of various studies (e.g. in psychoanalysis and sociology). Narrative motifs such as love and passion, the institutionalisation of marriage, cultural alienation and assimilation in exile, and, most prominently, affectivity and infanticide, have been evaluated and reinterpreted particularly from perspectives of political, cultural-historical, and gender studies. The versatile nature of the myth allows for multi-faceted readings and numerous angles of appropriation: where, at first, female affectivity and injured pride fuel Medea’s vengeful actions against Jason – culminating in the murder of his new wife Creusa and the murder of her own sons – these feelings and actions now constitute the cornerstones of the myth. This is particular true towards the second half of the 20th century, when there is a range of decidedly different reworkings of the story. Cruel infanticide is transformed into an act of positive emancipation, attributions of barbarism and alienation change between characters, and cultural constants, much like traditional norms, are overthrown.
Of course, every version of the narrative is part of what German philosopher Hans Blumenberg calls ‘Arbeit am Mythos’: a work that is built on and through the myth, with each version becoming a part of the reception and discourse of Medea. And although they may differ significantly in their reworking of the story, there are few but significant cornerstones within the narrative that emerge (or are absent) in many a version. These ‘mythemes’, in Medea’s case, range from Jason’s pursuit of the Golden Fleece; Medea’s use of ‘magic’ for both good and evil; her falling in love with the Argonaut against her will after being hit by Cupid’s arrow; the murder (and dismemberment) of Absyrthos, her brother; leaving familiar Colchis to travel to foreign Corinth; Jason leaving Medea for a younger rival; his liaison with Creusa; the ‘otherwoman’ burning to death by the hands of Medea; to her arguably most vicious deed, the infanticide, as an action of cruel revenge against Jason. However, it is with these building blocks of her myth that we as readers or audience need to start questioning the underlying motifs for such deeds.
I would argue that it is beyond debatable as to whether Medea is one of the most dangerous women from antiquity; she is a figure who still fascinates us today, especially when we consider her treatment of her love rival and sons. Creusa, or Glauke, as she is called in Lars von Trier’s film Medea, an adaptation of a Carl Theodor Dreyer script, most often falls victim to Medea’s sorcery: she dies after wearing a poisoned wedding gown and crown – either succumbing to her infection, as in Seneca’s and Euripides’ tragedies, burning to death by the hand of Maria Callas in P. P. Pasolini’s 1969 film Medea and Dea Loher’s 1999 play Manhattan Medea, or decomposing in front of Creon’s and Jason’s eyes in H. H. Jahnn’s 1925 play Medea. In adaptations like those of Canadian author Jackie Crossland (CollateralDamage, 1993) or Mexican author Cherrie L. Moraga (The Hungry Woman, 2001), however, Medea has nothing to do with Creusa, who is victim only to a patriarchal system and her family’s abuse in one, and cast aside by Jason as she is unable to bear his children (and manifest his status and political power in a society he himself has no standing in).
Medea’s offspring hardly ever lives. Most authors have her kill her son(s) in a “traditional” (read: ancient tragedy) way by stabbing them to death with a knife. Of course this implies the notion of phallic penetration as a means of Medea inflicting emotional distress back onto Jason. She reclaims, in the lives and bodies of her children, her own flesh and blood, at the same time ripping apart Jason’s legacy and annihilating his fatherhood. The children’s lifeless bodies are thrown to their father’s feet in Euripides’ tragedy, and then taken away by Medea on a dragon chariot to be buried as sacrifices in Aphrodite’s temple in Seneca. In von Trier’s film they are hanged and left for Jason to discover. Von Trier’s choice of the noose instead of the sword is him underlining a certain traditional (yet outdated), ‘feminine’ way of killing. Other versions, nonetheless, portray the children’s deaths in a significantly less cruel mode, thus detracting from the idea of Medea as the bloodthirsty murderess. Loher’s play has Medea suffocate her child with a plastic bag under a full spotlight, calling upon the memory and reversing the perpetrator-victim hierarchy of Jason drowning his mother in an act he describes as saving her from further sufferings on their flight from war.
Moraga evokes a pieta image when Medea poisons her son in a misguided attempt to prevent him from following in his father’s homophobic, misogynistic footsteps. She holds him in her arms whilst he peacefully drifts off into sleep and death. Christa Wolf’s 1996 novel, Medea. Stamen, recalls the events of Euripides’ tragedy; however, she aims to dismantle the ancient drama’s underlying political impetus. Her work not only accounts for various focalisers reflecting on the goings on in Corinth, it also deconstructs the myth of Medea’s cruelty when it is indeed a rampageous mob that stones the children to death. This, Wolf’s novel and its countering of Euripides’ play has been recalled again in a 2017 novel by Giwi Margwelaschwili, Die Medea von Kolchis in Kolchos. In the novel, Margwelaschwili discusses the metaphysical implications of ‘being’ and the way perception and ethical judgement of Medea’s deeds contribute to rendering her a violent ‘urban legend’. Margwelaschwili decontexualises Medea from the lead-up to her murders. And yet here, she does not kill anyone. Indeed, she is a statue and ‘does’ nothing as such. Her mind, nonetheless, exists in a Schopenhauerian ‘worst world’ in which she kills her children; her mind is changed and soothed after the statue (based on Euripides’ tragedy) reads Wolf’s novel and finds herself pardoned.
Despite her often recalled violence and outrageous revenge, one cannot help but empathize with her given her circumstances – at least to a certain degree. Her cruelty, I would argue, is undeniable, yet it springs from unbearable shame, xenophobia and abuse directed at her. Such factors are hardly considered in the judgement of this dangerously strong woman. It is, in fact, this strength and the independence she had before she fell for Jason and the forceful suppression thereof in the following years that demand an outlet in her deeds. One of the most fascinating versions of the Medea myth, to me, is a play by German Sturm und Drang playwright Friedrich Maximilian Klinger, who highlights not only reflections on morality and loyalty between the two former lovers Jason and Medea, but also takes into account a less prominent part of the myth, a curse cast upon Helios and his progeny by Aphrodite. Being Helios’ grandchild, this curse extends to Medea’s life and that of her children, too. It is, in fact, Fate that opens Klinger’s play and sets the scene for the gruesome narrative to unravel, stressing the inevitability of bloodshed and death; its cast of characters makes it one of the cruellest Medea versions I have encountered.
Where Seneca’s Medea states “Medea nunc sum –crevit ingenium malis” (l. 910) – having found herself to be the fury incarnate who leaves a powerful trail of destruction in ancient Corinth – the Medeas succeeding the Roman tragedy tend to represent a more distinct set of characteristics, transgressing the borders of ‘good’ and ‘evil’. Early representations of the myth lack detail and a focus on Medea’s deeds alone is unscrupulously one-sided, painting a picture of the Colchian woman as one of the most demonic female figures in ancient European tragedy. In his 1786 work “Medea in Corinth” (or “Das Schicksal”, Fate), Klinger draws on this depiction for his reworking of the Medea myths and incorporates the most significant mythemes of the narrative into his tragedy (e.g. Medea still killing her children). Still, the catalysts of her unfathomable actions lie within and without herself, her psyche, her very being. Motifs such as the revenge of a woman scorned and the notion of her turning against her own children to wipe the unfaithful Jason’s seed from the earth recur; however, the pitiful betrayal and the love of a grieving mother render the picture of the furious (half-)goddess of carnage unjust.
Medea’s complexity makes her ‘devilishly human’ and factoring in the seductive voice of her mother Hecate (the goddess of night and chaos satanically calling to her daughter to pay for both their failures – Medea having killed one brother for Jason, Hecate having neglected and thus killed her last child in mourning for the elder) and the ultimate appearance of the goddesses of vengeance (fittingly titled Eumenides, “well-intentioned, just”, instead of Erinyes, “vengeful”, evoking the justness of Medea’s wish for the suffering of Creon, Creusa, and Jason) prohibit us from calling Medea unambiguously bad. She is a ‘machtweib’ in the sense of the Sturmund Drang period; she is the embodiment of a vehement action which enables her to carry out such deeds and revolt against her suppressors. When she is banished from the state and forced to leave her children behind, it is her who ultimately calls the spirits of the underworld to assist her in her revolt, but not without begging her godly grandfather to assist her in parrying the temptations of darkness.
With the Eumenides Alecto (“endless”), Megaera (“jealous rage”) and Tisiphone (“vengeful destruction”) arrive Hecate and Medea’s brothers, the latter standing by to feast on Medea’s children after they find death penetrated by arrows and claws at the hands of mother and daughter. The Eumenides each take on one of the culprits, therefore consolidating Fate’s predictions of Medea’s path. Whilst Creusa finds a quick death through Megaera (she is seen to be but a puppet in the men’s power play), Alecto has Creon suffer at the death of his beloved daughter for a prolonged time before taking his life. Jason faces Tisiphone’s powers, as he is left with nothing to live for, neither his children’s love or a lover’s affection, nor his political stance in Corinth. In the end, he beseeches the furies to end his life without being heard. Medea, hereafter, exiles herself from humanity only to repeatedly be neglected in a second play by Klinger.
It is this play in particular that leaves its audience with questions of justness and the direction of cruelty towards its characters. Again, it is indisputable that Medea can hardly be seen as a positive example of peaceful emancipation, as some scholars would have it, especially when she leaves a trail of destruction and kills those who wronged her – even by simply being, as in the case of her children. And yet, Medea, in my opinion, cannot be seen as the sole cruel, murderous, dangerous dramatic persona either. When taking into account the Argonautica, Jason’s pursuit ofthe Golden Fleece in a farce set up by his unrightfully crowned uncle and Medea’s helping him to overcome her father’s obstacles to prevent the adventurous sailor from claiming back the fetish, one cannot but ask if Medea is sent on a spiral of cruelty even before she becomes the main character in her own story. Given that the fleece remains in Colchis after her father breaks a promise of hospitality and does, under these circumstances, not rightfully belong there but with Jason, is Medea not “right” in helping him regain what was lost to him? Yet, isn’t she “wrong” to break her father’s laws, and indoing so, ending up killing her brother, the executive of said law? But isn’t she “right”, again, when (if) she defends herself (and Jason) in so doing? An evaluation of these and many more questions significantly depends on the ethical stance one takes on the Medea myth in general and on the version of the narrative one chooses to discuss. Pointing a finger, one can only say that murdering her own children (and her love rival, and Creon, and, at times, bystanders) is surely not justifiable – she is indeed murderous, gruesome, dangerous – and her godly genealogy may even underline her abuse of powers that her opponents do not possess. And yet, she is indeed devilishly human in her behaviour, making her all the more dangerous to those who wrong her.
Barbara Bolig is currently pursuing a PhD in German Literature at the FernUniversität in Hagen. Her current research is on the Medea myth, theories of mythologization, and the cultural implications of the Medea narrative in various research fields and within German literature since the Enlightenment. To contact Barbara you can email her on this address: email@example.com or via twitter @bb_478